There are several ways to make log cabin quilts, but our favorite method is foundation paper piecing. The reason is that you get perfectly accurate quilts every time. Even those of us who are not that great at piecing accurately (..that would be me) can up their game tremendously by using this method. Here is a list of the basic tools that you will need to start foundation paper piecing your quilts.
What do I need for foundation paper piecing?
1. Sewing Machine
As with all machine-based quilt making, you need to have a sewing machine in good working condition. However, you do not need a fancy computerized machine to have great success with foundation paper piecing. In the video below, I am demonstrating on a large Bernina machine. But I have also pieced entire quilts on a small Sparrow 30 machine, and it worked great. Your particular machine needs to have a straight stitch that can be set to a really short length. You don’t even need to be able to fasten or reverse sew for this technique.
2. Paper Templates for Log Cabin
Decide which paper foundation size to use for your project and calculate how many you need for your planned quilt. You need to calculate the number of log cabin foundation templates to be able to know the number of blocks you needed for your project.
3. Ironing Station
If at all possible, set up an ironing station next to your machine so you don’t have to get up for every single press of your growing log cabin blocks. (Unless you want the exercise of course!) If you have a traditional ironing board, you can set it on a low height and place it at a 90-degree angle on the side of your sewing machine. This is not a bad set up but make sure you have an office/sewing chair that pivots so it is easy to turn back and forth between your sewing machine and the ironing board.
Another option and the one that I use most often is to put a small wool pressing mat next to the sewing machine. There are several good brands on the market and they are useful for all kinds of quilting endeavors, not just foundation paper piecing. The wool mat you choose only needs to be a little bigger than the blocks you are working on. Pay attention to which side of the machine the ironing station is on. I am left-handed and I generally prefer to keep my iron to the left of the machine. Experiment with which side works best for you.
4. Light Weight Iron
Ideally, use a small travel iron for foundation paper piecing. Since you will be sitting down and most likely working with the iron a little higher than what is ergometrically ideal, having a small, light, iron takes the strain off your shoulders as you work. The iron should always be kept on the dry setting for foundation paper piecing as moisture can shrink and warp the paper.
5. Fabric Strips and Center Squares
We recommend that you don’t cut all you strips at once. Especially for larger quilts, it can get hard to stay organized when you have huge piles of long narrow fabric strips. I generally cut just a few strips in each color and keep them organized on a clothes hangers. As I work, I will keep a pile of about one strip from each fabric color in my lap. Keep the center squares and the stack of paper templates next to the machine.
6. Flat Headed Pins
You really just need one or two at a time. Use them for keeping each strip in place as you piece. The pin will most likely end up under the foot (but not under the sewing machine needle) so the flat head is important so the growing block doesn’t snag on the foot as you sew.
7. Short Bladed (Super Sharp) Scissors
Any great pair of super sharp medium to small scissors will work here. I personally have a fondness for the Fiskars Micro-Tip Easy Action Shears. They are easy on the hands and for this particular technique, the short blade is perfect.
8. Sewing Machine Presser Foot
Most sewing machines will come with a presser foot that can be used for foundation paper piecing. Avoid using a presser foot that has a bridge of metal or opaque plastic right in front of the needle. Instead, opt for a foot where it is easy to see where the needle is going up and down, and also provides visibility of the area in front of the sewing machine needle. For some machine brands that means a presser foot with a clear plastic sole, while other brands have open-toed feet available that are meant for an entirely different purpose.
I prefer the #20 foot on my Bernina machine. This presser foot is actually intended for embroidery but I use it non stop for paper piecing because it allows me to see everything that goes on around my needle.
Opt for a thin sewing machine thread of good quality. I always use Aurifil cotton Mako 60wt both on top and in the bobbin. Since the stitch length will be VERY short, the thread will not show on the surface of your work at all so an exact match of thread color is not necessary. Pick a neutral hue that generally goes with your project colors and don’t feel you have to switch thread color. If threads are showing on the front of your blocks, you have a tension problem, or your stitches are too long. Pick a thread that is thin, strong and 100% cotton.
10. Microtex Sewing Machine Needles
You can use traditional Universal sewing machine needles, but the Microtex needles are much sharper and create a more accurate stitch line. The ideal size is 80/12. Start a new project with a fresh needle. If you run into thread breakage when you sew, switch the needle out to see if it makes a difference…it often does.
Stitch Length for Foundation Paper Piecing Log Cabin Quilts
If you are new to foundation paper piecing, chances are you will be surprised at how short your stitches will need to be.
What you want to keep in mind is this: your stitch length is not just important for sewing together fabric pieces the way it is in regular piecing. Your sewing machine needle is ALSO creating a perforation line that is instrumental in tearing apart the foundation paper after the quilt top is complete. On my Bernina, I am sewing with a stitch length of 1.3 or 1.4.
The goal is to sew with a stitch that is short enough that your paper easily rips out after the block is complete, but not so short that the paper falls off while you are still working on it. Experiment with how short you can go on your particular machine. If you are in doubt, do a rip test on your first few blocks by ripping out the paper of the center square and innermost logs (don’t take all the paper off the block until the quilt top is complete).
I usually prefer to keep all the paper on the back of the blocks until the entire log cabin quilt top is complete. If you do as I, and keep the paper in while sewing together your blocks to create your quilt top, then keep your stitches short until the entire quilt top is complete.
Apart from determining the best foundation paper-piecing supplies, we also provided you a quick guide below on how to set up your sewing machine for log cabin paper piecing: